This sermon accompanies the lessons for the Feast of the Epiphany, to correspond with our Epiphany Pageant, offered on this date.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, an empire feared for its power.
For a lot of people my age and younger, the word Empire may bring to mind images of Darth Vader and the ominous sameness of the Storm Troopers, in their white armor. But of course Star Wars has always been an allegory. George Lucas’ imagined Empire is the science-fiction version of something that’s been a feature of human politics for five thousand years or more.
An empire is a group of nations or people ruled over by an emperor or other powerful ruler and government. An empire begins when the king in one nation decides that they have the power to take over their next-door neighbor, and succeeds in doing so, and thinks, “Well, that went pretty well; now we have more territory, and we have control of more people, and we make them give us stuff; let’s keep going.”
By definition, many of those nations and peoples who are part of an empire are not willing participants. Even if their leaders decide that cooperating with the empire is in their best interest – like King Herod, who ruled Judea under the authority of the Roman empire – the people feel the rub of outside rule.
Therefore also, by definition, empires rule by force. Military, political, economic, cultural. In the great span of human history, there have been more and less humane empires; there have been good outcomes of empire – the Romans built roads and water systems everywhere they went. But empire always means dominion and subjugation. It always means that the person with authority over you is more interested in your cooperation than in your wellbeing.
Empires are always insecure. Always anxious. Their forces are always stretched; their presence and power is always resented. And so empires have tendency to use excessive force. To make an example of those that challenge their power, in hopes of intimidating and discouraging any other would-be resisters. The Empire in Star Wars built a Death Star, a weapon that could literally destroy a planet in an instant. The Empire in Matthew’s Gospel sends soldiers to murder the baby boys of a whole village, lest one of them spark a popular movement that would upset the apple cart of Herod’s cozy relationship with the Roman occupying forces. (A quick aside with some good news: that particular massacre probably never really happened… but empires do terrible things, to protect their power, whether that particular terrible thing is history or myth.)
Empire is a political form. But it’s also a mindset. A mindset of uniformity and control. A mindset that fears difference and dissent, seeing them as threats to its power. A mindset that fears the freedom of people or ideas. A mindset that demands submission, and acceptance of its norms and truths. And that responds with violence – verbal or physical – to any perceived threat.
We love stories about rebels thwarting the brutal power of empire. Whether it’s Luke Skywalker and Jyn Erso, Paul Revere and George Washington, Jesus and Paul, Martin Luther King Jr. leading that march across the Pettus Bridge towards a line of policemen ready to beat back their dreams, or the ragtag bunch of misfits in detention in the Breakfast Club, pushing back against the divide-and-conquer regime of a public high school and a sadistic assistant principal.
We root for the little guys, the scrappy underdogs. We root for the freedom of people and ideas. We root for dissent and difference… at least, in our stories. At least, when the empire in question is a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.
In the latest Star Wars movie, Rogue One, the characters face a great moral choice in the face of an empire’s dominating power: whether to keep your head down and just try to survive, or to risk, and even to sacrifice, yourself in the hope of destabilizing the oppressive power of empire.
In the Gospels, and in the first centuries of Christianity taking root under Roman rule, Jesus and those who followed his Way faced a great moral choice: whether to keep your head down and just try to survive, or to risk, and even to sacrifice, yourself in the hope of destabilizing the oppressive power of empire.
What will we do when we hear the tramping boots of Herod’s soldiers? What will we do when the mindset of empire demands our compliance?